Running Time: 89 Minutes
Director: Lloyd Stanton & Paul Toogood
Cast: Chris Rock, Jerry Lewis, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Billy Connolly, Kevin Hart, Garry Shandling, Steve Coogan, Frankie Boyle, Dave Attell & Jerry Seinfeld
Featuring some of the world’s greatest stand-up comedians, Dying Laughing is a unique glimpse into the agony and ecstasy of performance along with an singular examination into the day-to-day life of a professional stand-up.
‘The agony and the ecstasy of being a Stand-up Comedian – and the boring life bits in between!’
Stand-up comics are a strange breed. They don’t see the world like most do or, at least, the good ones don’t. They have a way of looking at things that make us, the regular punters, see things differently. When they’re good, they can have a mind-altering effect; not unlike a psychedelic drug. They are also usually the ones who are the first to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
In that sense comedy can be a weapon too; something that shakes us out of a somnambulant haze and lazers our focus in a way that other mediums can’t because it makes us laugh. And laughing feels good. But what drives a comic to do what they do and risk looking very silly in front of fellow human beings?
Dying Laughing asks this question to a cornucopia of comedic talent ranging from Jerry Lewis to Jerry Seinfeld and a whole bunch of other talented people in between, including Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer and the late, great Gary Shandling (The Larry Sanders Show is still one of the finest comedy shows ever made). The answer, at least on the surface, appears to be that the high that people laughing in unison can give you is euphoric.
Dying Laughing, to its credit, goes a little deeper than “it makes these people feel good and that’s why they do it” and it doesn’t just focus on the superstar comics like Seinfeld, Kevin Hart or Sarah Silverman. Less well known comics chip in too to add an air of authenticity to proceedings.
This isn’t a funny documentary per say but it’s about funny and the psychology of people who do this for a living.
Presented in black and white interviews intercut with colour footage of theatres and lively audiences, Dying Laughing subliminally lets you know that these guys and gals are separate from the rest of us.
They live in a different realm, a realm that only other comedians can really understand and live in. And they each talk about this act of standing up in front of people trying to make them laugh like it’s a religious experience, akin to visiting Lourdes or Mecca. The point is made several times that this is a calling and not something you do purely for fame and fortune.
The film even paints stand-up as masochistic when Jerry Seinfeld notes that:
“Comedy is purely a result of your ability to withstand self-torture…That’s where you get great comedy. Your ability to suffer”.
And suffer they do as the documentary does an excellent job of expressing the fear and loneliness of the stand-up as he or she is being judged night after night, sometimes in very harsh, vocal terms.
Perhaps the most surprisingly poignant story (in a film with cynical, world-weary comedians no less) is the one told by Royale Watkins where he, to use comedian parlance, bombs. And he bombs badly. The psychological toll that it takes to even recount the story is heart-breaking but as another comic astutely points out, a bad day at work for a comedian isn’t just a bad day but an existential crisis.
But bombing and bombing hard is a rite of passage that all comics must go through to see how badly they really want it. It is a peculiar thing to want to do for a living and at one point, one of the interviewees straight out says that comedians are damaged people and that underneath the poseur attitude lies a deep vulnerability. A lot of the comedians in this documentary all seem to share the same notion that they perhaps know too much and that happiness, however ecstatic, is short lived and possibly illusory.
Depression in many cases seems to stalk these people and Steve Coogan has the best line on this thread when he says that “I don’t know many well adjusted, spiritual people that are funny”. This notion is refuted by one or two other comedians but there is a strong ring of truth to this line of reasoning (and it’s funny so it must be true).
Sadly it still appears that stand-up is still very much a boys’ club as the majority of the comics on this roster are men and it’s not something that is addressed directly but the film tries to be as evenhanded as possible as some of the lesser known female comics like Kim Whitley and Kira Soltanovich are given time in the spotlight.
These lesser known comics, as well as the big hitters like Billy Connolly and Jamie Foxx, elucidate with scary detail just how solitary and difficult life on the road can be, especially in inhospitable and downright awful venues. This is a tough life and not without a multitude of sacrifices.
My favourite story in this is told by Garry Shandling as he recounts the time a young, aspiring stand-up working in a clothes store asked him what the secret was? Puzzled, Shandling asked “What secret?” The young upstart said that there must be some short-cut to success without having to visit all the comedy clubs and without all the humiliations that starter comics must endure? Shandling’s answer is that there are no short-cuts. Everything is hard-won and the work simply must be done.
It’s a fitting reminder for anyone who wants to work as a comic or a writer (or any kind of a performer for that matter) that failure and hard knocks are necessary before any kind of progress can be made. Fame may not come knocking but a certain satisfaction of a job well done will. And that’s the narcotic. Comedians understand this more than most because a job well done means laughs.
Dying Laughing is manna from heaven if you are a comedy nerd and probably even moreso if you are someone who wants to learn more about the craft of stand-up comedy. And if you don’t fit into either of these two groups, this is still a fascinating documentary about people who are addicted to that feeling of making other human beings laugh.